Fellows Focus:
Betty Montgomery

Fellow Betty Montgomery cannot pick one favorite plant and we don't blame her. Her garden, Forty Oaks Farm, in Campobello, SC, is opening for the first time during Open Days on April 7, and we're sure that guests will be delighted by the many inspiring species and garden spaces on her property. A master gardener and syndicated garden columnist, Betty is a wealth of knowledge and reminds us that nature is paramount to our collective wellbeing.

When did your interest in gardens begin, and what first inspired your passion for gardening?

I have loved gardening since I was a teenager. I had two aunts who were great gardeners, and my mother had a lovely garden too. I have wonderful memories of our yard where I played as a child. I have always preferred being outdoors, which also inspired me to work in the yard.  

For nearly fifty years, you have tended gardens in Campobello, SC, and Hendersonville, NC. Tell us about your gardens; what aspects do you most enjoy? Any favorite plants or spaces?

I started my first garden just after my husband and I were married, living in a duplex in Spartanburg, SC. We moved to Campobello about two years later, where gardening became even more of a passion. I wanted most to have camellias. I had grown up in eastern North Carolina, where we had camellias all winter long and I wanted to grow these bushes. We had located our home on top of a hill where it was very windy and cold. Camellias would not grow there. I realized that the few camellias I had planted below the hill at the edge of the woods were doing great. This led me to create a garden below the hill, in a grove of pines. This was the beginning of the garden that my husband calls “The Park.”

Trees are the most important, and I love them all. My garden would not be what it is without the trees. They build the framework of a garden. 

As for a favorite plant, it is hard to have favorite plants. Snowdrops have been pretty starting in December and hellebores started poking their heads up in January. Daphne is perfuming the air now. Daffodils are dotting the pastures and are a welcoming site as I come home, and the camellias are gorgeous down in the woods. I love them all. Then as spring comes along, the azaleas light up the landscape and the peonies and hydrangeas follow. How could I pick a favorite plant?  

You are opening your five-acre garden, Forty Oaks Farm, in Campobello to visitors as part of our Open Days programs this year – thank you! In October of 2020, the garden suffered from tornadoes caused by Hurricane Zeta and many of your large trees were tragically downed. How have you adapted to these losses and what changes will guests see in your garden?

The most devastating part was the loss of some very large oaks where I had a lovely shade garden and stream. After seeing a virtual program by the Garden Conservancy that Larry Lederman presented, and studying a photo in his book, I have decided to turn this into an area that has lovely fall color. In the South, we do not have the colors that are present naturally in the northeast but there are some trees and shrubs that one can plant in the south that have fabulous color. I have transplanted many Japanese maples from other areas of the garden to this area. I have added some Southern Sugar maples that do well for us. Larry’s photograph of the bridge inspired me to rethink this area and create something even better. It will take time, but I hope to have a fall showcase above the bridge one day.        

There is a vibrant community of gardeners in the Carolinas. What can our friends in other parts of the country learn from the knowledge of these dynamic southern gardeners?

The placement of plant material is very important. Sometimes you read a tag on a plant that was grown in the Pacific Northwest that says to plant it in full sun and, where I live, it might need a lot more shade. My snowdrops do best in the coolest part of the garden, as do the weeping willows, which I am told will not live longer than about fifteen years for us. Placement is important for many plants that do better in the north. I also have some plants that do great for me in a protected area, where I am told we are too cold. Camellias are a good example. Camellias have to have more protection where I live to perform well.  

You share your own knowledge as a Master Gardener in your books, 
A Four-Season Southern Garden and Hydrangeas: How to Grow, Cultivate, and Enjoy, as well as through your writing as a syndicated gardening columnist. What messages do you hope readers gain from your work?

Gardening can be very rewarding. A garden is always changing and how much fun it is to see plants grow and develop into a lovely specimen. I love to encourage people to visit gardens. I have learned a great deal by seeing how other people have placed things, and I hope others will learn this too. Reading garden magazines and books helps one to get ideas of what to do. One thing I have learned the hard way is to understand the mature size of a plant. I have planted trees and shrubs too close together because it was hard for me to envision how large some plants would become. I was told once "plant thick and prune quick." I have had to move some plants where I have planted too thick and where the plants have outgrown their space over time.  

Also, please put a bench in your garden where you can sit and enjoy your creative works.  

You and your husband, Walter, have traveled extensively visiting gardens around the world. What gardens have most inspired you?

Two of my favorite gardens are Stourhead in Stourton, in England, and Ninfa in Cisterna di Latina, in Italy, although all gardens have inspired me in some way. I love the natural feel these gardens have and yet every detail was well-planned. I have also visited many Japanese gardens that have made me realize how lovely a green garden can be. Japanese gardens are a tranquil retreat, a place to sit and contemplate. I could sit in a Japanese garden for hours and be content

During the difficulties of the past two years, many have emphasized the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How have your gardens provided solace for you during this time?

Nature has the ability to wash away whatever is provoking me. Digging, weeding, planting plants, pruning, etc., make me forget about troubles. Studies have shown that being out of doors is good for mental health. It exposes you to sunshine (vitamin D) which is a synthesizer of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that induces happiness. Connecting with the environment can help all of us feel better and be more energized. To be outside with flora and fauna and to hear the birds singing and the pileated woodpecker (the tattletale bird) alerting all the animals I am there, to see plants poking their heads through the leaves, and the sun rays through the trees; these are some of the things that “make my heart sing” and make me forget about the hardship that Covid-19 has placed on us. I am quite blessed to have a garden where I can escape and bond with nature which has not been affected and which continues to add calm and beauty to our lives. Retreating to nature, what could be more pleasant?